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Hugh Evans

British Ambassador to Laos

Part of UK in Laos

10th October 2016 Vientiane, Laos


In 1973, the Oxford-educated economist E F Schumacher published his seminal work, “Small is Beautiful”.  It was an early critique of globalisation and a clarion call for sustainable development.  Over the years, his iconic title has also stirred broader discussion about the comparative merits of smaller and larger organisations.

Each has advantages, in my view.  But since arriving in Laos I’ve become more aware of how smaller, nimble institutions can deliver impressive results.  Take Laos’ ASEAN Chairmanship this year.  Laos is one of the smallest of the ASEAN member states.  But its government here has made best use of its limited resources (especially senior officials able to operate in English, ASEAN’s official language) to shoulder the responsibilities of running South East Asia’s premier regional body.  Many observers I have spoken with feel that it has done well.

I think so too.  When ASEAN Foreign Ministers plus those of its Dialogue Partners (mainly other regional powers) came together in Vientiane last July, the Chair had to host 20 major meetings and numerous preparatory discussions.  There were even more during the recent Leaders Week (6-10 September) with back-to-back ASEAN Summits, an East Asian Summit, a parallel Business Summit, and a range of bilateral programmes with many top Asian and other world leaders.  This included the historic first visit to Laos by a serving US President.

It was a breathtaking schedule – and a logistical triumph.  Under central direction, 5000 visitors were allocated to every available hotel; fleets of vehicles deployed; conference rooms booked; gala dinners cooked; the international press corps serviced; and the right people delivered to the right events at the right time.  There were hiccups.  But anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly suggests those who took part were impressed with Lao organisational flair, even if ordinary citizens were inconvenienced, not least when all city schools were shut for the week (not that my 15 year old complained too loudly!)

Impression from the Opening Ceremony of the 28th/29th ASEAN summit ((c) Vientiane Times)
Impression from the Opening Ceremony of the 28th/29th ASEAN summit ((c) Vientiane Times)

Logistics are not everything, of course.  Some commentators argue Laos could have been bolder with its agenda and has lacked a substantive achievement to match the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community under the previous Chair.  Nor did the ASEAN People’s Forum, the region’s main NGO network, meet in Vientiane.

But Laos can claim its share of successes, too.  ASEAN, an inter-governmental body, operates by consensus.  Laos has navigated competing pressures over the South China Sea and other strategic issues to agree compromise statements and preserve ASEAN unity.  As Chair, it also set itself the goal of securing “eight deliverables” – mainly economic agreements – to deepen economic AEC integration.  All have been adopted.  And while their full impact will take time to be felt, they all represent a step forward.

Laos deserves credit for its chairmanship role.  But its experience also highlights the challenge of managing wider expectations for smaller entities.  I sometimes feel this, too.  I have spent much of my career serving in large Embassies where matching resources to ambition is a central consideration.  But, leading a small team as I do in Vientiane, I am conscious that having to focus on only a few niche priorities means you face particularly hard choices in deciding what not to do – knowing that our many friends and partners would like us to do more.

The Creative Partnership is the Embassy’s strategy for codifying our niche priorities.  I will use my next few blogs to explain these in more detail, starting with our support for parliamentary institutions.

So, is small beautiful?  I certainly think it can be, though it’s always good to have the potential to grow!  But please let me have your thoughts.

1 comment on “IS SMALL BEAUTIFUL?

  1. There is no point in encouraging small organisations for the sake of encouraging small organisations, in my view. Large organisations often act majestic and show grace. Small organizations can sometimes act petty. Just my experience and my view.

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About Hugh Evans

Mr Hugh Evans was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 2015. Mr Evans joined the FCO in 1985 and has covered a wide range of…

Mr Hugh Evans was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 2015. Mr Evans joined the FCO in 1985 and has covered a wide range of policy and management roles.

He spent his early career as an FCO Research Analyst working on South and South East Asia and was seconded to the US State Department as a regional expert on Asian affairs. He has since served overseas in Nairobi, Khartoum, Moscow and, most recently, Erbil, in northern Iraq.

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